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With the resources of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, including a fully funded research constellation on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Rensselaer researchers are poised to expand their role on the global stem cell research stage.

The gap from stem cell to cure is wide, and researchers have a lot of middle ground to fill in before stem cell therapies will be as common as other revolutionary advances in medicine like vaccines and antibiotics.

“In biology, we are constantly looking to close the gap between tissue structure and function,” says George Plopper, associate professor of biology. “Stem cells cross that gap and we don’t yet know how. They aren’t committed to any one function. They start off as nothing, but somehow change their structure to perform a very specific function in the body.” Plopper says that uncovering this middle ground between structure and function is very difficult and must be the first step toward medical therapies using stem cells.

“The public wants to see results, but one plus one doesn’t equal six,” Plopper says. “We need a foundation of knowledge before we can create these therapies.” “The use of stem cells for therapy could be the next revolution in medicine,” Palazzo says, but points out that it also is a relatively new approach to medicine that will take a huge, global research commitment to unravel. “It took years just to keep them alive and viable outside the body so scientists could study them in culture.” Palazzo also notes the political and legal constraints that have virtually halted progress in many laboratories, with individual states such as New York now taking the initiative to build their own programs.

In 2007 Governor Eliot Spitzer set aside more than $600 million for stem cell research and support throughout New York state, a landmark amount. “New York state has provided strong support to Rensselaer’s biotechnology effort,” says Palazzo. “Now, the state is working to fill in the massive funding gaps left by the 2001 federal restrictions. This is an important step toward recruiting top stem cell researchers to the state and ensuring that our researchers and their labs are fully funded.”

Following the passage of a policy supported by President George W. Bush in 2001, no federal funds could be directed to develop new embryonic stem cell lines or be spent on research using unapproved stem cell lines. “That has restricted a lot of stem cell research and offered a strong disincentive to researchers to start studying stem cells,” Palazzo says.

Because a vast majority of scientific research is federally funded to some extent, it continues to prove extremely difficult for researchers to fund their stem cell studies. “Top American stem cell researchers have actually taken their research abroad where more public funding is available and American laboratories have an extremely difficult time recruiting top researchers to the states,” Palazzo says.

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Closing the Stem Cell Gap
Kristen Bennett, Bulent Yener, and George Plopper

With the support of expanding research platforms such as the laboratories of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, researchers have the opportunity to collaborate with people outside their own disciplines, leading to some promising research results.

An additional challenge to researchers is a glaring lack of supporting technology. One example was the unexpected closure in July of a promising global stem cell research company in Singapore, ES Cell International. The company had substantial funding, prominent stem cell researchers, and two promising techniques that used stem cells to treat diabetes and congestive heart failure. But the company did not have the technology to support its lifesaving research. The researchers could not produce enough stem cells with the available technology to support the medical therapies. The labs closed, halting progress on important stem cell research that may have erased diabetes and heart disease.

“The knowledge is out there,” Robert Linhardt says. “But the technology and supporting research are not, and so right now, stem cell research is going nowhere fast.” More than a dozen researchers at Rensselaer are currently working to close the scientific and technological gaps stifling progress on stem cell research.

An Evolving Expertise

While in the past, Rensselaer had not been associated with research in life sciences fields like stem cells, within the Institute’s laboratories biologists, biomedical engineers, chemists, computer scientists, chemical engineers, and students are coming together to quickly advance this emerging field. With the support of expanding research platforms such as the world-class, collaborative laboratories of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, researchers at Rensselaer have the opportunity to collaborate with people outside their own disciplines, leading to some very promising research results.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.